Rapid business growth, particularly in the service sector, has meant companies are evolving with more mobile and disparate workforces.
However, managing these teams is not proving so straightforward. According to a report by the Business Performance Management Forum, existing IT provision simply does not meet the challenge of managing mobile workforces. Among the key issues it uncovered were:
71% of respondents said the percentage of remote workers was increasing at their organisations
86% said their IT departments felt increased pressure to support mobile and remote workers
41% said their firms suffered business disruptions because of ineffective support.
The report also found that protecting against threats, intrusions and viruses is the number one IT priority associated with remote and mobile workers, followed by improvements in technical support.
Unreliable networks and lack of communication are not the only problems. A report by business communications company Avaya found that more than half of mobile device users missed important business meetings, customer inquiries, or business leads due to failed communications. More than one-third said missed communications directly resulted in lost revenue or additional expenses. And while two-thirds carry more than one mobile device every day, most pick up messages at night because they cannot be reached in a timely manner.
Rising to the challenge
The demands of the global, 24/7 marketplace and a trend towards outsourcing mean HR professionals and line managers need to be flexible in how they manage mobile workforces. They often need to manage employees based on specific project activity, while at the same time ensuring they provide value not only for the business, but for customers.
However, because employees are no longer shackled to the office, they can work from home and use technology to maximise their time efficiency.
Both groups have specific issues that need to be managed.
From the employee point of view, these boil down to:
Managing the working day efficiently
Keeping key information secure so it can be accessed by those who need it (tasks, memos, contacts, diaries, etc)
Keeping track of hours and days worked on specific activities
Managing holiday entitlement
From the employer perspective, the key questions are:
How can I see who is doing what?
How can I build a sense of team when employees are not coming in to the office every day?
How can I track jobs, accounts or customers that take up the most time?
How can I manage holiday allocations and monitor sick days?
How can I be sure essential company data is secure?
The key to efficiency in managing any disparate workforce, whether mobile or home-based, can be summed up as ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ availability, which means the internet.
However, while many large corporations have the luxury of heavyweight IT investment and budgets, smaller employers may have difficulty in finding or affording something to solve their connectivity problems.
So what options are available to connect a mobile workforce?
First, there are 3G, and now so-called 3.5G, networks. The latter enables users to access the web at up to 2Mb per second broadband speeds, using a mobile phone and laptop, a personal digital assistant or a smartphone.
Second, staff can use the increasing number of wi-fi (wireless network) hotspots. Some UK cities, including Norwich and Manchester, have already created dedicated wi-fi zones, while many cafés offer wireless internet access for a small fee.
Using the internet is the most efficient and reliable means of connecting staff to their work. Company intranets often require bespoke hardware or software, so if you are at a remote location without the right software, you’re stuck. Web-based systems can circumnavigate these problems and there is barely a computer in the world that does not have an internet browser.
Another crucial choice is the hardware that links staff to their respective offices. The laptop is probably the most common, but more and more organisations now equip staff with smartphones, which often incorporate as many functions as a personal computer onto a far smaller device.
A final consideration may be whether to use in-house IT resources to manage your mobile workforce or to outsource the hosting and management of your mobile networks to a third party.
Application service providers (ASPs) – where a user’s application is located on a third-party server, accessed via the internet – are one option. ASPs now host most key office programmes over a fast network connection. These cost little to set up and work well for organisations with a limited IT infrastructure.
Whether you choose to manage your workforce from within or outsource it to a supplier, ensuring consistent, reliable connectivity means your business will not be disrupted just because your staff aren’t tied to their desks.
About monitor media
Mobile company Monitor Media developed its office management service five years ago when it was struggling to come up with a way to manage its own disconnected workforce.
The application, known as Tommie (which stands for Total Office Management Made Incredibly Easy), became commercially available last year. Users subscribe to the Tommie website and they can access a wide range of office management tools, including shared group and individual calendars, to-do lists, contacts, expenses, timesheet and holiday allocation. Corporate data is stored on secure servers and users pay 10p per day.
Managers can then drill down in a wide variety of ways to bring up reports on all aspects of staff activity across as many jobs or accounts as required.
The workforce of the future
If you thought managing a mobile workforce was challenging now, the future will open up all sorts of flexible options for working, according to the Orange Future Enterprise Coalition, which was set up to debate and research trends in emerging technology.
In the next few years, the coalition predicts that:
The take-up of broadband connectivity in the home will continue to grow and with it will come faster speeds, enabling richer and enhanced services, such as interactive, ‘on-demand’ television, improving the quality of video conferencing and other office facilities.
The distinction between the various media we know so well (the television set, the radio, the internet and the telephone) will continue to blur, both in the home and when on the move.
Advances in mobile networking technology will increase the speed of internet access on the move, rivalling most existing fixed networks. This will greatly improve the quality of information that can be accessed while workers are out and about, enabling greater workloads to be managed while on the move.
Robert Simmons is managing director of mobile services company Monitor Media, which he formed in 1995. Before that he spent 10 years working for leading UK advertising and promotional marketing agencies, where his major clients included Guinness, Sony and United Distillers, as well as running an integrated marketing agency.